My tween daughter doesn’t miss going out to restaurants with the same urgent sting that my husband and I do. But she does miss us going out to eat — and leaving her with a cool teenage babysitter, the remote control and a big, gooey pan of baked mac and cheese.
Her favorite recipe happens to be extremely easy (maybe because it’s the one I always make?), and you can mix it together directly in the pan, without having to boil the macaroni first.
To make enough for 6 to 8 servings, heat the oven to 425 degrees. In the blender, combine 4 ½ cups milk, 1 brick of cream cheese (8 ounces, or use 1 cup of cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, or sour cream), 1 ½ teaspoons salt, 1 garlic clove, 1 teaspoon mustard powder (or mustard, or skip it), a lot of black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne or nutmeg or both. Blend it up until smooth.
Put a pound of elbows or other small pasta shape into a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. (Those cute mini butterflies or shells work well).
Scatter 1 pound (5 cups) grated Cheddar on top. I didn’t have that much Cheddar, so I used up all the cheese ends in the fridge (except the blue cheese, which my daughter would not have appreciated, but if you would and you have it, feel free to add.) I also added goat Brie, Gruyère, Manchego and what I think was Monterey Jack, but I honestly can’t remember. It was all good.
Pour the milk mixture over the macaroni and cheese in the pan. To make the bread crumb topping, melt 4 tablespoons butter and stir in ½ cup grated Parmesan and 1 ½ cups bread crumbs. Scatter the mixture over the top of the macaroni. Panko makes the topping nice and fluffy-crisp, sort of like an edible shag carpet, but if you don’t have bread crumbs, just sprinkle the top with the Parmesan and more Cheddar so there’s a nice even layer.
Bake for 20 minutes, then increase the heat to 450 degrees and continue to bake until the top is golden brown, about 20 to 30 minutes longer. Let rest for at least 10 minutes before serving; this gives the pasta a chance to absorb all the milk. Then serve it up in front of the TV, and don’t forget to hand your tween the remote.
This is part of a series in which Melissa Clark teaches you how to cook with pantry staples. See more.